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I am baffled whenever I hear news stories about parents refusing to get their kids vaccinated. With no scientific proof that vaccines cause autism, such a practice can only be called insanity.

Perhaps more people should write a novel set in the Middle Ages or at least do the research of an era before vaccines made smallpox, polio, and diphtheria relics of the past in the West and fodder for a historical novelist to set time and place.

Studies of a couple of medieval cemeteries cited by Julia M.H. Smith in Europe After Rome provide chilling statistics, even to a writer who has accepted the fact that most medieval people died young.

A sixth-century cemetery in Cannington in southwest Britain reveals that 15 percent of babies did not survive their first year, and 64 percent of the population died before the age of 18. Yes. That’s two-thirds.

The Münsterhorf Cemetery, used from the ninth to 12th centuries in Zurich, is just as grim. Thirty percent of children died before reaching age 5, and two-thirds of them were infants. Only 50 percent–yes, half–lived to age 18.

This is an era of war, famine, accidents, and teen moms who died in childbirth. But diseases that seem long forgotten played a major role in these grim statistics, and that doesn’t cover the heartbreak of scars left by smallpox or withered legs from polio.

While I enjoy writing about medieval Europe, I don’t want to live in a society where half the children die. We have medical research and responsible parents to thank for a society in which we expect our children to outlive us.

We no longer worry about smallpox because vaccines eradicated it, but people in developing countries still suffer from polio and other horrific illnesses. With travel so easy, it would not take much for someone with a disease to infect someone who is not vaccinated, especially a baby. Having a child get seriously ill or die from a preventable disease is the type of historical re-enactment we can all do without.

For about more vaccines, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.

Child with deformity caused by polio

The deformity in the child’s leg was caused by polio. (1995 photo from Wikimedia Commons. This image is a work of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and as a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain.)